I’m making good headway on my main reading project for 2019. This batch of mainly contemporary works has made for some edifying and very satisfying reading over the past couple of months. While parts of Salka Viertel’s memoir, The Kindness of Strangers, takes place in Berlin (you can find my full review of this NYRB reissue at Shiny New Books), the city is the main setting for the other three. So let’s travel there and see what we encounter in the years 1928/1929.
Unlike Salka Viertel, who at one point, due to hyperinflation, could not afford a connecting ticket to get to her destination, we’re travelling by train direct to Berlin: City of Stones with Marthe Müller. All aboard ….
In the first part of Jason Lutes graphic trilogy, Marthe Müller is on her way to study art in Berlin. New Objectivity (die Neue Sachlichkeit) was all the rage in those days, but this is something that leaves Marthe, with her expressionist leanings, cold. So she leaves college, determined to make her own way. (Up to this point, she has been financed by her parents, but there are hints of nefarious right-wing connections, and Marthe is determined to strike out on her own.) This is harder than it seems, and the privileged Marthe finds it hard pandering to the well-off in a department store. Fortunately for Marthe, an outsider before she starts, she meets someone on the train, who is capable of saving her from the loneliness that overcomes her in the big city – Kurt Severing, a pacifist journalist.
Now Severing is our passport to the political turmoil swirling around Berlin on the late 1920s, as he has to report on the clashes between communist and Nazis. His pacifism ensures objectivity, a depression that matches Marthe’s, and pressure to take sides. Neutrality was not an option!
Lutes takes the opportunity to show the divisions that the political climate was capable of producing. Among his cast of characters, there’s a poverty-stricken family; the father a Nazi, the mother, Gudrun, more sympathetic to the left. They are driven apart by circumstance – it is a tragedy in the making. I won’t forget Gudrun’s story in a hurry.
The detail in Lutes’s black and white drawings is astonishing and so is the educational value of his storytelling. I was always puzzled as to why the Weimar Republic was so reviled from both left and right. I know now, and that’s without having to wade through history books. But why is Berlin a city of stones? Let Kurt Severing answer that.
At the same time as Marthe Müller is making her way to Berlin, Bernie Günther is achieving the impossible: appearing in his debut and his swansong in the same novel! Metropolis, the 14th novel in this series by the late and greatly lamented Philip Kerr, actually takes place prior to the previous 13. Bernie is at the beginning of his career in the Berlin Kripo, like Marthe, an ingenue (almost). His smart tongue, obviously something he was born with. “You’re hard enough to skate on”, he says at one point in a comment much appreciated by Ian Rankin, in the foreword to Kerr’s posthumous novel. And Bernie’s tongue, lacking the bite of world weary cynicism that is both the product of hard experience and a leitmotif in the later/earlier novels (depending on whether you’re thinking chronologically in historical time or in publication sequence) is much more entertaining here (provided you don’t insist on C21st political correctness.) Bernie, himself, is a much more attractive character than his later self. Unsullied, capable of caring about the poor and underprivileged, and definitely not prepared to brush any dirt under the carpet. He hasn’t yet made his pact with the devil … this is a state of grace he should enjoy for as long as he can.
Bernie’s Berlin of 1928 is one in which someone has decided to clean the streets. A serial killer is murdering prostitutes, taking trophy scalps. Then a second series of murders begins. There is plague of crippled WWI veterans, begging on the street corners. The veterans are not to be tolerated – they are a constant reminder of Germany’s defeat and disgrace to the image of the fatherland. When Bernie makes a connection between the two sets of murders, he is willing to put his own life on the line and pose as a war veteran himself. It is a brave and honourable thing to do, and yet Bernie does not emerge from Metropolis with his halo intact. A compromise is necessary to make headways in the Silesian station killings (the official name for the investigation into the prostitute murders), which coupled with Bernie’s rookie naiveté results in a less than satisfactory outcome for the judiciary , and a damaged conscience for Bernie.
The standouts for me in Metropolis were:
a) the control that Kerr displayed in the characterisation of Bernie Günther, rolling him back to the blank canvas that he would have been, had Kerr started his series at the beginning. There are no faux pas in this regard, and that is remarkable given that Kerr was writing at a time he was dying of cancer
b) the depth of Kerr’s historical knowledge. This isn’t just a historical thriller, this is seamlessly integrated history that jumps off the page. The novel is populated with a plethora of real figures and actual events. Author’s notes running to 4 pages are included as an epilogue. I particularly appreciated the cultural references. At one point Bernie Günther meets a strange character wandering the streets dressed up as a cowboy. This turns out to be the great German expessionist, Georg Grosz. More Expressionism with the Otto Dix triptych, Metropolis, reproduced in the volume, after which the novel is named and structured.
And a final nod to the visual arts when Bernie has a series of meetings with Thea von Harbou, wife and script-writer for Fritz Lang. He actually advises her on the best content for a film about a serial killer in Berlin. (Advice she took apparently, if the plot of M is anything to go by. 😉)
And so from films to TV series and the spectacular that is Babylon Berlin. Once seen, never forgotten. I watched it at the beginning of 2018, and deliberately left a year between it and starting on Volker Kutscher’s novel sequence: Babylon Berlin. Even so, the TV series does not fade. And that’s important, because it is significantly different from the novel in details and characterisation, More glitzly, more sexualised. As they were spending so much money on the series (with a budget of £36m, it is the most expensive German series ever produced), something was needed to guarantee the viewing figures. And Decadent with a capital D will make for addictive viewing. (Though I do wish they hadn’t tampered with Lotte as much as they did.)
But also D for Dark with the series losing none of the novel’s darkness in which Berlin Kripo are plunged into the murky depths of pornography rings, Russian gangsters seeking a huge cache of Russian gold, and the threat of Black Reichswehr: a right-wing group intent on re-arming Germany in secret. It’s a baptism of fire for Gereon Rath, the detective who has been transferred into the Berlin Kripo under a cloud. Yet, he’s a tough cookie, a seasoned operator – not as amiable or as vulnerable as his TV counterpart. But still, like Bernie Günther, he believes that police work should remain incorruptible, above the political fray. Yet, he too, has to accept help, for a price, from quarters he would rather ignore.
Babylon Berlin is the first of 6 novels covering the years 1929-1938, 4 of which have been translated into English by Niall Seller. (#4 The Fatherland Files will appear later this month.) I’m looking forward to making my way through the series not only to discover if Volker Kutscher manages achieve his self-proclaimed mission – to explain how and why the Weimar Republic disintegrated into a dictatorship – but also to further appreciate Niall Seller’s translations. I buddy read Babylon Berlin with a group from the Reading Through The Ages Goodreads Community, including from Mel’s Bookland Adventures. Mel is a native German speaker and for a time we were on “pun watch”, because although the material is dark, Kutscher can be quite playful. As can Niall Seller. For instance: Rath is interviewing his landlady about a former tenant, who used different identities. One of which was Müller or Möller. Something run of the mill like that. (See footnote.) The pun’s not in the original German. Hat’s off, Mr Seller!
Why did Kutscher start his series in the spring of 1929? It’s the golden age of the Weimar Republic. Hyperinflation was over, things could have settled. But history was to take a different turn. The nazis – no capital yet – were still seen as a fringe group. Anti-semitic thugs, admittedly, yet they were tolerated. The communists were deemed the bigger threat. State reaction to their demonstrations culminated in innocent deaths during the May Day riots of 1929, an event that appears both in Lutes’s City of Stones and Kutscher’s Babylon Berlin. Was this the extreme response that led ultimately to the Republic’s demise? I don’t know. I hope to clarify this in my next batch of reading.
Footnote: Müller/Möller is Miller in English.